At the Murchison Performing Arts Center, a place where harmony so frequently takes center stage, President Neal Smatresk accordingly shone a spotlight on the importance of collaboration to further solidify UNT's impressive reputation during his 2019 State of the University address.

During the sixth annual event, the president outlined a five-year strategic plan — developed following listening tours with faculty and staff throughout all university divisions — that involves a three-pronged approach to enhancing UNT's local, national and global footprint. That approach, he emphasized, requires an unwavering commitment across all colleges and departments to scholarly activity and innovation, people and processes, and student empowerment.

“In an age where universities have been asked to change more rapidly than ever, where there is a lot of pressure on public institutions to do better with less, we can't get to where we need to go without building a culture of collaboration,” Smatresk said.

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Before delving into the specifics of the plan, which will be presented to the UNT System Board of Regents in November, Smatresk first celebrated UNT's year of record-smashing success. Over the past year, UNT increased its research expenditures to nearly $75 million and received a $30 million gift from former UNT System Board of Regents chairman G. Brint Ryan to name the College of Business, resulting in $60 million total in gifts and pledges. The university also saw more than 9,600 students graduate, the addition of 32 National Merit Finalists for a total of 93, and enrollment numbers that topped 39,000 and were driven by a 15% increase in freshman, a 7% increase in transfer students and an 8% increase in graduate students — resulting in UNT's largest-ever entering class.

He thanked faculty, staff, students, administrators, donors, corporate sponsors and government officials for making those milestones possible.

"These are spectacular numbers and will serve to drive us forward over the next several years," Smatresk said. "We are approaching our FY22 goals, which puts us in the ranks of elite public institutions."

Mission and vision

One key to understanding the way forward, Smatresk said, is to understand who we are.

"We are not just one of the most creative schools in the South, but one of the most creative schools in the country," he said. "We're one of the most caring campuses I've ever been a part of. And we're resilient — we come back strong from our challenges, and this is a trait we want our students to have as well."

This deeper understanding of UNT's identity led to the development of simplified mission and vision statements this year. The university's mission, Smatresk said, is that "our caring and creative community empowers our students to thrive in a rapidly changing world." The vision is to "become globally known for collaborative and imaginative educational innovation and scholarly activity that transforms our students and benefits the world around us."

And that's happening in every corner of the main UNT campus and beyond, he said, including in Frisco, where the university's presence continues to expand with its Hall Park and Inspire Park locations. 

"The partnership we have with UNT is already impacting our business environment and our business ecosystem in a positive way," said Ron Patterson, president of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation. "UNT's relationship with Frisco ISD, and with our Collin College, provides a pathway to education for our students who right out of high school are able to get into those degree programs, land internships, and ultimately stay here to live and work."

Scholarly activity and innovation

This year, UNT was once again named a Tier One research university by the Carnegie Classification — one of only 131 in the nation. Tier One matters, Smatresk said, because it helps UNT recruit the best faculty and graduate students, and it cements its reputation in areas ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

"This is critical and by driving these variables, we will enter the ranks of some excellent institutions," he said, noting that UNT could soon be neck-and-neck with universities such as Brown, Cal Tech and Notre Dame. "This is a pretty nice neighborhood, and it's one we want to live in."

Smatresk said the university will pursue moving up in Tier One "our way" by creating a research and innovation community in which everyone is provided the opportunity to excel. That means a continued focus on UNT as a comprehensive university that builds strengths in the arts, humanities, social sciences, professional programs and STEM disciplines.

"We're seen as an applied program, but because of our comprehensiveness, CMHT students also have to learn the arts, sciences and business — everything from creating a product to understanding how to run a business," said Jana Hawley, dean of the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, who noted that UNT's commitment to interdisciplinary learning has been essential in allowing the college to develop an innovative food studies program it will roll out in the spring. "This kind of framework allows us to be out-of-the-box thinkers."

To further help support, communicate and celebrate a dedicated culture of scholarly activity to expand UNT's innovative impact for students and the world, the five-year plan focuses on goals such as increasing research expenditures to $100 million and the annual number of doctoral graduates to 300. It also emphasizes more cross-campus and cross-system interdisciplinary research, collaboration with other universities, corporate research and mentoring, and expanding the number of endowed chairs, commercialization and licensing, and research spaces. The university made several gains in those areas this year, including receiving $10 million from the Texas Legislature for the Center for Agile and Adaptive Additive Manufacturing. And in August, UNT unveiled its new 26,250-square-foot biomedical research building at Discovery Park.

"I want you to think about the biomedical facility not just as a research and teaching space," Smatresk said, "but like it's an idea factory in one of the hottest disciplines in the country."

People and processes

"What does a mid-century campus look like?"

That question was vital to the president's vision for permanent culture change that promotes a networked and collaborative approach to engagement. That means, he said, building customer service, increasing enrollment at the Denton and Frisco campuses, decreasing time to graduation and becoming a best place to work.

Smatresk laid out critical steps to making those goals a reality, including streamlining operations and communications, helping faculty and staff identify and refer at-risk students, and leveraging technology — including tapping into trends in online learning and artificial intelligence — to better interact with prospective and current students. This year, UNT inked a deal with Coursera, a popular online education company, that offers courses in a variety of subjects that students can interact with on their own schedule and at their own pace.

"It's not a question of integration of technology, but ensuring we are providing a first-rate technological experience for students," said Adam Fein, vice president for digital strategy and innovation. "It's essential we create high-end technology with an easy user interface experience. Also, we can't assume that all students are the same. In offering specialized learning options, such as our BAAS and Integrative Studies programs, students can custom design their degree choices and their careers."

Expanding mentoring and professional development opportunities for students and staff also is crucial, Smatresk said. He pointed to the many partnerships UNT has developed over the years, including with the Dallas Cowboys, PGA, Toyota and Cisco, that provide rich learning opportunities for students and also allow the university to tap into the deep expertise these corporations have when it comes to internal processes and how to best interact with the outside world.

"Our partnership with UNT has exceeded expectations," said Joe Simler, senior manager of corporate partnerships for the Dallas Cowboys. "As we continue to grow as an organization, we're going to look a lot different in five years than we do now. There's going to be different jobs and departments that don't even exist yet that this next workforce is going to be specialized in — things like looking at data and analytics, and how we make the game safer. I think there's nothing but great opportunities for growth between the Cowboys and UNT."

Student empowerment

As he kicked off the last portion of his address, Smatresk projected an image of a graduate from the College of Engineering, his arms raised in victory.

A university that empowers students is exactly what enables them to reach that capstone — so how, Smatresk asked, can UNT ensure that every student makes it to that pivotal moment?

First, he said, the university must come together to develop innovative programs, expand student services to encourage a growth mindset, and improve retention practices and policies. He outlined plans to expand internships and research experiences for students, use workforce data and corporate intelligence to create more high-demand degrees, improve cultural competence as a minority majority campus, and meet all students' mental health and well-being needs.

"Our ability to empower our students mean they become our leaders," said Elizabeth With, vice president for student affairs. "Our ability to create leaders transforms them and enables them to transform the world."

The impetus is on the UNT community, Smatresk said, to continue building upon its already-growing academic reputation. This year, the university added six new industry-responsive degree programs, has 77 academic programs ranked in the nation's top 100 — up from 72 — and launched a Project and Design Analysis Program at UNT at Frisco that will allow students to graduate in three years, where they will be virtually guaranteed employment upon graduation.

UNT's strategic plan, Smatresk acknowledged, is comprehensive and ambitious — one that requires everyone working together to tackle tough issues. But, he said, it all circles back to the university's core mission.

"I know you, and I know what you can do. So let's not settle for being good," Smatresk said. "Let's be extraordinary in rising together to help our students thrive."

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